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The amoral world of Donald Rumsfeld

  • 22 July 2021
  ‘He’s never reflected deeply enough to actually consider whether what he’s saying is the truth or a lie.’ Errol Morris on Donald Rumsfeld, Rolling Stone, April 1, 2014 Long before the depressing age of post-truth was upon us, and the Trump administration celebrated and gloried in degrading egg head expertise, one individual was making a habit of it. The late Donald Rumsfeld (pictured right), twice US Secretary of Defense, a Fortune 500 CEO, and congressman for three terms, did not let evidence and the firmness of facts trouble him. If he had a cause to pursue he would. Morality was merely an impediment to service.

His approach towards what might be called evidence-based policy was, to put it mildly, incongruous. His attitude to the veracity of intelligence assessments of Iraq’s weapons capabilities leading up to the 2003 invasion by US-led forces, was stunningly indifferent. It made him, in the view of George Packer of The Atlantic, the worst defense secretary the United States ever produced.

When asked if there was any evidence as to whether Iraq had attempted to or was willing to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction at a press conference on February 12, 2002, Rumsfeld came up with his own epistemological teaser. ‘There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’

While this has been subsequently treated as a masterful formulation on uncertainty and knowledge, it was disingenuous. From the attacks of September 11, 2001 onwards, Rumsfeld had made it clear that he would be untroubled by any evidence that would smudge the narrative of regime change, specifically regarding Iraq. With the Pentagon in flames from the ruins of American Airlines Flight 77, Rumsfeld was already cooking up the story ahead of time. The vice-chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff General Richard Myers was instructed to find the ‘best info fast… judge whether good enough [to] hit SH@same time — not only UBL.’ No imagination is required to deduce that SH was Saddam Hussein and UBL Usama/Osama Bin Laden.

In pursuing this objective, Rumsfeld was not operating unilaterally. The contributions of other members of the Bush administration to distorting evidence or forging tenuous connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda in the so-called Global War